Chapter Three: The four O'clock club


            It is 4 p.m. on a weekday and local workers, fresh from jobs, saddle up to the bar, grin at the familiar face behind it and order a cold, wet class full of beer. But the man isn't sitting in a smoke filled tavern in the center of Secaucus, but at one or more of the five fire houses there, sipping beer in a building owned by the town and insured by the town, and B if an alarm should go off in mid sip B this man and the other volunteer fire fighters sipping been with him, could respond to a fire, not certain whether or not they have reached the legal limit of what the law claims is legal intoxication.

            While town employees are subject to random drug and alcohol tests as dictated by their union contracts with the town, volunteer fire fighters are not, making it possible that a volunteer to respond to an emergency situation in an unacceptable condition.

According to one fire captain, slightly less than half the 100 fire fighters in Secaucus participate regularly in the social ritual of firehouse drinking. Many fire fighters B who do not drink B are reluctant to speak out against the practice, partly because the department relies on people volunteering, and fear that criticism or banning of alcohol use could reduce the number of people seeking to belong to the fire companies. Recruitment has been a problem in the past. Other fire fighters B according to officials interviewed for this account B seem to feel that it is wrong to criticize or complain about fellow firefighters. Some public officials B in private comments B claimed firefighters make up a significant voting block and many of them are the hardest workers during political campaigns.

            But at least one firefighter has been on a campaign to "shut off the tap," in order to prevent some future tragedy he claimed would spoil the reputation of the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department.

            Although each of the town's five fire houses have different regulations regarding how accessible alcohol is, at least, two of the fire houses have pretty much an open bar B becoming centers for afternoon gatherings as well as fairly frequent parties to which non-firefighters are invited.

            The question of risk to life and potential liability was raised this week, when two fire officials requested a legal opinion as to whether or not fire firefighters are violating the law by consuming alcohol in public buildings, and whether or not officers in charge of those companies could be held responsible if someone should get hurt as a result.

            "We have received a request from two fire company commanders to look into whether it is legal for fire fighters to drink in the fire houses," said Iacono, who is also a volunteer fire fighter in Secaucus. "They have been told that if someone should get hurt as a result of someone drinking at a fire house, the commanders could be held legally responsible."

            Alcohol and volunteer firefighters seem to go together throughout the state, but since Secaucus' department tends to be among the oldest, the relationship goes to the roots of the organization, something so fundamental to the nature of the beast it is difficult to sever them, even after it threatens lives.

            The Fire Chief's Inspection Parade -- held every two years -- highlights this problem over the years, and how significantly troublesome alcohol has been among firefighters.

            Last year, the department celebrated its 48th parade. From the sidewalk, I saw firefighters from other towns -- particularly garfield -- waving residents to throw them cans of beer. The crew of that particular engine company was so drunk they dueled with fire extinquishers in the street as their vehicle weaved from side to side. This, of course, was nothing compared to the historic antics of paraders in the past. Back in the "good old days" of the parade, barkeepers used to put out kegs, and the fire trucks would stop in front of each, fill their mugs, down the alcohol, then move on to the next bar, ending the parade route in such a stupor many had to get carried home.

            When the risk grew too great for the muncipal leaders to ignore, they modified the practice by allowing the firefighters to drink only at the end of the parade route in the local stadium.

            Even after the town outlawed public consumption of alcohol, it gave its firefighters an exception for the parade (as well as for alcohol consumed in the fire houses -- considered public buildings under the law.) In the mid-1990s, Sal Manente, then a third ward candidate, angered firefighters by voting against the practice, claiming the council was hypocritical for allowing one group to drink in public while outlawing it for everyone else. One year, fire fighters packed the council chamber in protest when the council -- by accident -- failed to pass the proper resolutions to allow the alcohol to flow for after parade festivities.

 Yet even as late as the mid-1990s, when the habits of the fire department had apparently calmed down, drunken revery produced several questional events, like the drunk girl who stripped naked during the affair, and later, found her under pants missing. The mock search for the missing panties became a sort of inside joke among some of the fire fighters.

            What most politicians avoided one of the more troubling aspects, the tavern-like society that developed around the built-in bars at some firehouses. At 4 p.m. -- after work -- many of the volunteer fire fighters who work for the town, gather and begin to drink.

            "By 11 p.m. these guys are toasted," one source told me. "If there's a fire, then you've got a lot of drunks responding."

            At least twice, one of the chiefs showed up to a fire drunk. In one instance, the chief was escorted home. In the other case, he was asked not to respond to any more fires. When the news came out, he was asked to take a leave of absense to get treatment.

            Elwell when talking to me in town hall said the problem goes back for as long as there was a fire department, and took note of how the Plaza firehouse got started.

            "That was back when the engine company was kept in the town hall," he said. "The fire fighters complained that they didn't have a bar like the rest of the fire companies."

            Buchmuller, who owned the land under which the current library was built as well as the park beside it, offered to donate the property to the town to build a library -- which was then on the third floor of town hall and up a twisting stairs that most people dreaded.

            When council members proposed giving part of the new library building to the fire department, so that company could also have a bar.

            After the incident with the fire chief, local officials took another look at the law, and eventually closed the tap on social drinking in the fire houses.

            "It is a very gray area," Iacono said. "Firehouses are public buildings and in other public buildings, alcohol use is not allowed."

            Engine Company No. 1, in the Plaza Section B which had some of the tightest control over use of alcohol already B asked for the ruling

Heflich said alcohol use is a prominent feature in some firehouses. Other fire fighters said that different houses have different policies as to alcohol use on premise. The North End Fire House B which has a younger population B tended to allow easier access to alcohol than the Plaza Fire House with an older population where most drinking is done during football games on Sunday afternoons.

There fear was, according so one fire fighter, that inebriated fire fighters, unaware of their condition, might respond to a fire, putting themselves or others at risk.

            Reilly, who served as liaison to the fire department and has been a member of the a firefighter for over 29 years, said the fire department's officers are vigilant and would not allow someone obvious inebriated onto the fire scene.

            "Our fire department has zero tolerance for anyone drinking and responding to a fire," Reilly said. "The department does police itself in these matters."


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